Column: UFC has the right rules for Thanksgiving table talk. No eye-poking, but you have to engage

Turkey and poised carving knife
(Los Angeles Times )

Once again we’re all heading into Thanksgiving with contagious political conversation at fever pitch. And once again we’re leading with our chins.

Some of us will hope to avoid conflict on Thursday by staking an aggressive claim to pacifism. Others are planning to show patronizing empathy for those with whom they disagree. Ack.

For the record:

8:12 a.m. Nov. 27, 2019An earlier version of this piece misidentified Dre Baldwin as a former NBA player; he played professional basketball in European leagues.

Still others, the poorest of us Thanksgiving sods, are self-deluded enough to believe we’ll convince someone of something. Fat chance.

I’m renouncing all of this! Thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the invaluable guidance of one Dre Baldwin, former professional basketball player and cultural philosopher, I plan to enter the Thanksgiving arena armed with new rules of dinner-table engagement and the eye of the tiger.

The UFC began right around Thanksgiving in 1993 as a new form of mano-a-mano combat. It celebrates the Brazilian notion of vale tudo — Portuguese for “anything goes.” In the UFC’s early days, you could do sumo wrestling; you could strike; you could kick; you could choke. “There are no rules” was the UFC’s first slogan.

At the holiday table this year, watch for those who fancy themselves just that lawless. They’ll be growling and sporting Jim Jordan-style shirtsleeves. Or if they’re social-justice partisans, they may feel free to charge admirers of Brett Kavanaugh with being closet rapists themselves. Anything to win for this below-the-belt crowd. Vale tudo.

Except, even in the no-holds-barred early UFC, there was a clear prohibition: No biting. Because ouch. Likewise, the worst scrappers in a dinner-table argument can probably be counted on to adhere to some limits. No fisticuffs, for example. Even a Trump-supporting aunt would hesitate to clock a Warren-supporting nephew, despite the promise of liberal tears as gravy for her turkey.

It didn’t take long for the UFC to discover that “no biting” didn’t go quite far enough. A few more rules — actually a pretty long list now — keep the contests moving and prevent the PR headache of fighters dying on the mat. In our Thanksgiving Octagon, we should follow suit.


The UFC rules exist, in the main, to prevent excessive aggression, including fish-hooking, stomping, trachea-striking, clawing, rabbit punching and head butting. Among Thanksgiving guests, fighting too roughly would include name-calling, yelling so loudly it stops all other conversation, slamming the table or throwing a drink. Surplus belligerence is grounds for banishment from Grandma’s without so much as a Tupperware of cold potatoes for the road.

But hold up: You’re picturing the rule breaker as a red-faced red-state redhat, yes? Not so fast. Let’s return to the aggro pacifist determined to engage no one.

There’s an especially curious prohibition in the UFC: No “timidity.” Fighters cannot refuse to engage. In short, for the Thanksgiving Octagon, you can’t bite, but it’s just as disqualifying to throw up your hands when “Medicare for all” comes up and say, “I can’t stand this! I don’t want to fight!” If you care, you have to make your case. If you don’t care, you have to make the case for your indifference.

And there’s one more crucial UFC rule: No faking injury. Oy, the Thanksgiving ramifications.This is how it goes: Your cousin is adamant that Pete Buttigieg is never going to president. Suddenly you’re on the brink of tears and running for the powder room. Taking offense at that level is over the top, it’s a form of “timidity,” and that’s cheating.

In the NBA, flopping is the name given to flamboyantly falling down to draw an offensive foul, as Baldwin explained to me in an email. “The first we [American-born players] encountered flopping was when more European players came to the NBA, using their acting skills to draw fouls calls from the refs. I played overseas for nine years, and that stuff is commonplace.”

At the dinner table, big displays of hurt feelings stop the game just as surely as flopping undermines a pick-and-roll in the NBA or taking a dive stalls an attack on goal in MLS.

I guess it’s possible that someone out there legitimately doesn’t want to hear a word about impeachment, Fiona Hill or Hunter Biden at Thanksgiving. (Shrug emoji.) But I still say that everyone has to find a way to engage. Pacifism, after all, fails if it’s passive. The canny pacifist uses the move at the heart of ultimate fighting: jujitsu, in which you turn your opponents’ aggressiveness back on them.

This Thanksgiving, if you’d rather talk about anything other than politics — squirrels or sunshine or colonoscopies — good on you. But perfect the countermove. Here’s a sample script:

Uncle MAGA: “So, saps, you all still weeping about ‘Russian interference’?”

You: “Oh! Speaking of interference, remember when the refs failed to call it on the Rams in that championship game last year? Hoo boy it’s gonna be a great day for football.

“Pass the creamed spinach.”

Twitter: @page88