The sport of Mixed Martial Arts is undergoing a tremendous rise in popularity. This rise forces us to consider its place in modern society and the values attached to it.
Mixed Martial Arts is one of the most destructive sports known to man and until recently was banned from the city of New York. Its opponents have labelled it ‘immoral’ and ‘barbaric.’ Arizona Senator John McCain famously stated that it was nothing more than “human cockfighting.” Yet, despite the apparent repugnance, mixed martial arts has become the fastest growing sport in the world.
Combat is an ancient art that existed primarily for the purposes of war. Over time it has taken on a more recreational role as weapons and technology rendered hand to hand largely absolute. It has since evolved into a multi-billion dollar sports industry, with its greatest and most commonly known champion being the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The UFC was conceived to answer the age-old question of which martial art would reign supreme. It started off with very few rules and was guided by the raw urge to find out who was the strongest. It was only after it was bought by the Fertitta brothers that the sport cleaned up and became the razzle-dazzle show it is today. Its rapid rise poses important questions for modern society. What is this sport’s place in society? How do we reconcile its violent nature with today’s world?
Staged in an enclosed cage the shape of an octagon, the sport is a battle for dominance between two men. It starts off with the stare and usually finishes with blood. Every fighter stands alone, and each one has dedicated their life to perfecting their technique. Most fighters suffer horrendous injuries at some point during their career. A Canadian study suggests that fighters succumb to traumatic brain injury in a third of professional rounds. This has led to calls to criminalize the sport, both France and Norway have banned the sport completely. Many perceive it as uncivil and far too dangerous. However, few feel similarly about American football, which also has high rates of injury.
Fighting and violence have always existed as part of human life. Every child has dreamed of becoming the strongest. It is one of the most natural urges to want to fight, our primal physiological instinct being the fight or flight response. For a long period of history this urge was integrated as a custom through the tradition of dueling. Dueling lasted as late as the 19th century and was an extremely popular way of resolving conflict among the upper class. However, over time we have come to demonize it and have sought to eradicate it by calling it inhumane. Yet, the rise of MMA demonstrates that many people still have a strong urge to fight and to witness fighting, revealing that fighting remains part of the fabric of our lives. As we turn ourselves away from nature and seek solace in technology, opting for the comfort of our phones and digital life, we abandon our senses and the animal in each of us. It is for this reason that cage fighting becomes so alluring to us, because it speaks to our senses and talks of a distant past, it murmurs of who we once were and wakes the ape that lingers in our blood. White Fang, the classic novel by Jack London, the dog who feels like a wolf, is the story of us all, teaching us that “one cannot violate the promptings of one’s nature without having that nature recoil upon itself.” While many other sports attempt to distance and cover up injury risks, such as when the NFL was accused by a congressional report of pulling funding on concussion research, MMA accepts the risks that it places on its participants. MMA acknowledges the danger of the sport and embraces its primordial purity. In this truth, spectators find something real and raw.
Dana White, the CEO of the UFC, once stated that if “you put two guys in the octagon and have them fight, that crosses language barriers, ethnic barriers, everything.” What we should see and take notice of is not the oozing brutality but the pummeling of boundaries. Its skeptics only see the surface and refuse to take a closer look, but MMA is a modern sport. It is a sport which is part of our shared humanity—it is our story. And, like any good story, it is marked by a few scars.