The ultimate Fighting Championship may be best known for takedowns, tapouts, and technical knockouts, but the mixed martial arts organization is working hard to become a heavy hitter in the world of HIV education as well.
Last fall the UFC partnered with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada for a new HIV awareness campaign titled Protect Yourself at All Times. The campaign, designed to specifically raise awareness of the virus among people under 30, rolled out in the weeks leading up to World AIDS Day.
UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin says that when he first heard about the campaign he wanted to get involved, but he became further motivated after learning about high HIV infection rates among young people.
“I grew up in a different era,” Griffin says. “People were definitely afraid of HIV back then, but education also helped change the way we thought about the disease. That education helped my generation make smarter choices about the way we protected ourselves. I was surprised to learn HIV infection rates were on the rise in young people, and I wanted to help change that.”
Griffin, who is one of the spokesmen for the campaign, says complacency about HIV is an undeniable contributor to the rise in infections among young Americans. “People don’t talk about HIV like they used to,” he says. “Because fear of the disease has lapsed, we’ve sort of forgotten about it. But HIV is still out there, and we’ve got to instill the importance of protecting yourself in a generation who didn’t see the terrible effects of the disease in the ’80s and ’90s.”
As a part of the Protect Yourself at All Times campaign, several UFC athletes and personalities have flexed their advocacy muscles by visiting centers around the nation that offer free HIV tests and educational initiatives. Public service announcements across a variety of media are also in the works, and the UFC will fully support the Nevada center’s LGBTQ+ program, which offers free HIV tests in and around Las Vegas.
In addition to pushing HIV awareness, Griffin also views the UFC’s partnership with an LGBT organization as an opportunity to fight homophobia in sports. “I think any place people can be themselves is a good thing,” Griffin says. “I went to the groundbreaking of the center years ago, and I’ve been the UFC’s representative at many events there. I’ve met so many cool people at the center over the years, and if my involvement in this can help open people’s mind, even better.”
Though the partnership is the first of its kind for the UFC, the MMA organization has already been actively working toward leveling the field for LGBT athletes and fans. The sport embraced lesbian fighter Liz Carmouche after she came out in 2012 (fans have since playfully nicknamed themselves “Lizbos” in a show of support) and (albeit to a lesser extent) transgender athlete Fallon Fox (after her 2013 coming-out). The UFC has also suspended fighters for the use of antigay and antitrans slurs, and UFC president Dana White has encouraged gay fighters to come out.
“It’s a continuation of something that started a long time ago,” says Griffin. “Gay, straight, whatever—none of that actually matters when you’re fighting someone. Not what you have in your bank account, what you drive, what sex you are, none of it. I think that’s the message the UFC has been trying to push.”
Griffin says he’s proud to be a part of an organization that’s attempting to make positive change in sports, but he’s aware there is a lot of work ahead before homophobia is a distant memory.
“It’s long been a problem,” he admits. “But I’m not just talking about the UFC—I mean homophobia in sports in general. And athletes sometimes say really stupid things. That’s why I think it’s great to see there are even commercials being played during the Super Bowl educating people about saying ‘that’s gay’ and how it can be offensive to gay people. When I was younger it was something we never thought about, and I’d like to think that most people who’ve said that kind of stuff don’t hate gay people, it was just a term that was in use. But it’s only by hearing how it can affect people that we realize how those things can really cause a lot of hurt.”
Throughout his career, Griffin has also been a coach and mentor to many aspiring UFC fighters, and while the sport has yet to gain its first out gay male mixed martial artist, he expects the UFC will greatly benefit from any athlete who is brave enough to be the first.
“I know not everyone would receive him well, but I think it would be best if some male fighter did come out,” Griffin says, adding some words of encouragement for anyone who may be contemplating opening up publicly about being gay. “Of course, like anything else, it’s going to be hard to be the first to do something, to be in that category by yourself. But that being said, others will follow later. Whoever that person ends up being, they are going to be a mentor to a lot of other people by setting an example. And my thing is, nobody should have to hide who they are. If you have to lie about yourself to anyone, they aren’t worth having in your life.”