As a child I took Karate and Taekwondo and loved professional wrestling. Around age 12 I found a VHS cassette in my grandparent’s living room. I slid the cassette into the VCR prepared to watch this new wrestling organization, unaware that it would eventual dictate my college major and projected career path. The video was entitled “UFC 1: The Beginning”. It became immediately apparent that this was anything but the WWF when the first bout ended after a 215 pound savate (french* kickboxing) fighter kicked a downed 400+ pound sumo wrestler in the face and followed it with upper cuts ending the fight in under 30 seconds. Intrigued, I watched as a 170 pound Brazilian won this tournament without throwing a single punch. I was hooked and had to see more. Since that summer day in 1997 I have watched 119 UFC pay-per-view events and countless events from other promotions watching as the sport has evolved from videos rented out of the “backroom” of niche video stores into nationally televised events taking place the world over.
*France is not a proper place, therefore it does not deserve the treatment of a proper noun, and is only capitalized here because it begins the sentence.
With its rapid ascension from the underground to the mainstream, MMA has sparked much debate over its viability as a legitimate sport. On one end of the spectrum you have those who view MMA as a barbaric blood sport akin to the coliseums of Rome. On the other end you have people who recognize it as an athletic, competitive sport that incorporates many of the values of any other recognized sport. I subscribe to the latter school of thought.
Arguing that MMA is too violent or dangerous to be an accepted sport in American society is hypocrisy at best. Arguably the most beloved sport in the US is American football, a dangerous, violent game. The obvious comparison sport would be the time honored, traditional combat sport, boxing. Even in comparison to boxing the argument is void as boxing is a far more dangerous sport. Only looking at the years since the inaugural UFC event, in 1993, and only in the United States there have been 19 boxing fatalities. One boxing fatality took place during a 2001 fight in New York, a state that still has yet to legalize MMA, based on it being too dangerous. In Boxing when a combatant is knocked down by a strike and dazed he is allotted 10 seconds to get up and regain his composure. The 10 count and standing 8 count directly contribute to massive head traumas for the fighters. In MMA bouts when a fighter is knocked down the fight is usually stopped immediately to prevent long term injuries. More over, with 15 three minute rounds in a boxing match the athletes trade tremendous amounts of blows to the head and body; whereas, in a five minute five round MMA bout there are less strikes due to the complex nature of the fight. With the usage of takedowns leading to extended periods of grappling fighters spend less time open to injury.
In addition to arguing against MMA as a dangerous undertaking, detractors claim it to be an ultra violent modern day version of the gladiators of the Roman Empire, a depiction brought onto the sport by its biggest organization. In its infancy the Ultimate Fighting Championship first was not much more than a sanctioned street fight. The competitors wore no gloves and the only rules were no shots to the groin, no biting, and no eye gouging. There are even rumors that the original owners contemplated surrounding the cage with an alligator filed moat. The videos I watched as a teenager had to be rented by my uncle cause they were kept with the pornography and one had to be 18 to rent them. The gladiatorial bloodsport image is one that many still hold of MMA, although it has evolved into a highly regulated, safe, competitive sport since the sell of the UFC. There is now a litany of rules and safety protocols. The fighters now undergo extensive anti-doping tests and post fight medical examinations. The progression of the sport was necessary to negate the arguments of brutality.
Since the restructuring of the organization and its subsequent gain of state athletic sanctions the UFC has lunged into the mainstream. Much of the success is directly related to the success of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), the UFC’s cable television reality show/competition. The first season’s finale was a milestone moment not only for the UFC but for MMA as a whole in the US. The last fight was for a six figure 1 year contract to fight in the UFC and resulted in, arguably, one of the best fights in MMA history. The Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight was such a tightly contested bout that although Griffin won both fighters were awarded a contract and it instantly brought the sport to people who had previously dismissed it as a fad. Now in its eleventh season, TUF has all but silenced most general attacks against the sport and its opponents have resorted to attacking the organizations and fighters themselves.
When the facts are examined ad compared to relative mainstream contact sports, it is hard to make a compelling argument against MMA based upon violence and/or danger to the athletes. Looking back at the rise of contact sports in America there are glaring similarities between MMA and football or boxing. All of these sports underwent a period of social rejection but ultimately have become staples of the American sports landscape. With the technology and knowledge today’s sports, from auto racing to football, are safer than ever. Strict regulations within MMA have been made in order to conform to the social standard and have, for the most part, helped not only the national viewpoint of the sport but the athletes involved as well. Having watched MMA evolve from the bare knuckle, style vs. style cage fights I watched in the 90s to the regulated, technical game that requires athletes to master multiple forms of martial arts and establish high levels of strength and conditioning, I must continue to argue for tits acceptance as an American sporting mainstay. Perhaps someday the majority will see the sport for what it is, a sport.
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