In the United States, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and similar leagues have an uphill battle. State athletic commissions refuse to sanction them, congressmen try to ban them, sponsors refuse to back them and cable/satellite companies refuse to carry their events.
In this country, we look at the caged in ring, the bare knuckles (or small grapple gloves some leagues use), painful submission holds and occasional bloodied face with contempt. To us, such a sport is brutal if not outright barbaric. To further complicate matters, early UFC advertisements, many American’s first exposure to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) action, highly touted the danger to fighters, especially the risk of death.
However, in other nations, there’s no such disgust with MMA fights. In South America and Asia, MMA is a sport on par with soccer or baseball. Major events are televised nationally, sponsors line up and competitors make money on par with other national celebrities. To them, joining a martial arts school is like joining a little league team, it’s just a normal part of growing up.
Much like soccer, MMA is a sport where America is isolated from the world. Though we have many great competitors and are constantly creating new ones, they often have to go overseas to compete, either part time or full time, in order to make the most of their career. UFC is the only large-scale MMA event in the United States and it lags behind other leagues both in talent and reputation.
But unlike soccer, most of America’s problems with MMA stem from misinformation and confusion, not lack of interest. Because no matter what your local politician says, underneath the hype and the sound bytes lies a very serious and very safe sport, one that could easily be many times more popular than it is.
The Myths of MMA
Most people who feel strongly against MMA events base their arguments on one of three pieces of misinformation, each of which contribute to the lack of respect the sport gets in the United States
MMA is Dangerous
As with any contact sport, the risk of injury in MMA is high. However, many steps are taken to ensure that MMA matches are safe for everyone involved. Every element of the setup of an MMA event is done with safety in mind and, overall, MMA has a better safety record than boxing or kickboxing.
In boxing, the leading cause of death is brain damage. Brain damage is usually caused by repeated trauma to the head. Boxing matches can last up to 12 rounds, or thirty-six minutes of fight time, with near-constant blows to the head. Worse still, the padded boxing gloves do little to protect the fighters’ heads but are instead designed to protect the hands of the fighter throwing the punches. This encourages fighters to punch to the temple and side of the head, accelerating the damage done and actually increasing the risk of damage.
MMA matches, by comparison, are much shorter. The average match lasts only a few minutes and some last only a couple of seconds, almost all of that time spent on the ground. If an MMA match goes longer than fifteen minutes, it’s considered a marathon and an oddity. Furthermore, blows to the side and top of the head are actually very rare since hitting with bare knuckles or thin gloves is more likely to injure a hand or wrist than the person receiving the blows. Finally, referees in MMA matches stop fights quickly if a fighter receives too many unanswered blows, even if they’re still on their feet, contrast that with boxing where a knockdown followed by a ten count is usually required to stop a fight.
Another leading cause of injury in boxing is the ropes around the ring. Fighters can fall through the ropes, crashing to the floor below, or they can get backed up against them and take blows to the face, hyper-extending their neck as they arch backwards. Most MMA leagues, by comparison, use a tall cage that prevents such accidents. That’s why, even though we’re taught by Hollywood and professional wrestling that cage matches are brutal, in reality, they’re much safer than the alternative.
The truth is that the most common injuries from MMA matches are broken hands from incorrect punching and broken arms or legs from submission holds not tapped out of in time. Where 2-3 boxers die each year of head injuries, only one MMA fighter has died in recent memory, anywhere in the world, and he showed signs of head injury before he stepped into the ring. Most agree that if the fight had taken place in the United States or Asia (he was fighting in Ukraine), he wouldn’t have been allowed to compete.
In the end, MMA is safer than boxing ever could be and is on par with other full contact sports. Banning it or not sanctioning it on the grounds of safety is both misinformed and hypocritical. There is no way around it.
MMA Isn’t a Sport
A lot of Americans have the impression that MMA matches are just brawls and that leagues like the UFC are little more than fight clubs. While it’s true that most leagues try as hard as they can to closely simulate a street fight, there’s little denying that the matches look nothing like one.
This isn’t something that people just show up for randomly. MMA competitors are professional athletes and train year-around, non-stop, to compete. Unlike most other sports, there’s no “season” or downtime, events are held year around and all over the globe. For most, training is a full-time job as they condition both their bodies and minds to compete.
Second, even though MMA matches are short, that doesn’t mean they aren’t physically draining. A boxer can tell you exactly how tiring one three-minute round of stand-up fighting can be. Combine that with kicking, grappling and submission wrestling and you have a recipe for the most tiring five minutes of your life.
But most important of all, your average MMA match isn’t just a slug fest, it a contest of strength, skill and endurance and you have to know striking, grappling and submission wrestling to succeed. Sure, anyone can get into a fight, much like anyone can play football, but to do it safely and on a professional level requires a very high level of skill that can only come with a lifetime of commitment to the sport.
In the end, it’s no different than any other sport in terms of the athleticism, the strategy and the dedication that is required to succeed. If athletes in football, baseball and basketball deserve our respect, clearly so do MMA competitors.
MMA is Too Violent
As MMA has begun to gain traction in the United States, some people, including many in government, have said that it’s too violent for American TV. Though that definitely seems hypocritical in a country that airs shoot outs, car chases and other horrific scenes on the evening news, it’s a concern that’s made MMA almost impossible to sanction in many states.
Simply put though, anyone who says MMA is too violent has never watched a full event. Instead, they’ve almost certainly had their information filtered and probably watched nothing but a few short clips, more akin to highlight reels. Based upon that, it’s easy to see how they were led to believe that it’s a veritable bloodsport when, normally, nothing can be further from the truth. Yes, there are some very violent moments, but judging MMA based on those flashes in the pan is akin to judging football or hockey solely on their “hardest hits” reels. It’s unfair and leads to false conclusions.
Any contact sport will have violent moments, be them hard checks, stiff shots or vicious tackles. It doesn’t matter if you play football, hockey, soccer or even baseball, violence happens. However, in all cases, the actual sport winds up looking very different from the highlight reel.
Most MMA contests are fought more like chess matches than brutal bloodbaths. It’s very rare for fighters to simply trade blows and most fights take place on the ground with both competitors seeking a submission ending. Knockouts do happen and blood is sometimes spilled, but both are relatively rare occurrences. Contrast with boxing, where the only way to win is to punch your opponent repeatedly, and one begins to wonder what is more violent, a sport that encourages brain jarring punching or a ground fighting chess match where few punches are thrown and, for the most part, no damage is done.
Given both MMA’s popularity in countries much more squeamish about violence than the United States and the violent content already available both in our movies and on our television, MMA seems very tame, even if one dismisses the boxing comparison.
After all, no one gets shot, blown up, run over by a car, stabbed or beaten with any other kind of weapon. That automatically makes it less violent than your average cartoon.
In the end, MMA has the potential to be the next great American sport but, instead, is stifled by misinformation and hypocrisy. Though the industry does have itself to blame for many of these problems, the time has clearly come for America to wake up and appreciate MMA for what it is, an age old contest played out by trained athletes in a safe environment.
Which, from what I’ve gathered, is the very definition of the word sport.