The Evolution and Legitimacy of Martial Arts

The Evolution and Legitimacy of Mixed Martial Arts

Kyle Mettler


He shook his head in an effort to clear the cobwebs, tears accompanying the blood streaming down his bewildered face. Teila Tuli, a 420-pound sumo wrestler, had just been brutally knocked out by head kick within 20 seconds of the first ever “Ultimate Fighting” contest. Gerard Gordeau, a savateur about half Tuli’s weight, winced from the pain of a fractured hand along with the realization of the damage he’d done to the broken man as the referee asked Tuli if he would like to continue fighting.  While the appalling spectacle that took place in Denver on November 12, 1993 was far from a sport of its own, it captured a powerful curiosity pertaining to unarmed, unrestrained human combat that rapidly gave rise to modern mixed martial arts.  Over the last 25 years, technical proficiency and professionalism in MMA have vastly improved, reducing its dangers and rendering the meat-headed brawler a rare breed.  The sport has breached the mainstream media barrier, inking a major television deal with FOX Sports and adopting new management in a $4 billion sale.  While it has skyrocketed in popularity, MMA is still in its infancy and has potential for substantial progress going forward. It will always be violent and consequently have a different type of fan base than other popular sports, but its influence over innate human curiosities, potential for momentary thrills, and variety that appeals to a broad range of fans suggest that it will continue to grow.  In order to gain further legitimacy in the public eye, MMA organizations need to publicize more sophisticated aspects of the sport from the fighter and fan perspective, diffuse common stereotypes, demonstrate greater awareness of fighter safety and domestic violence concerns, and improve relations with their fighters. 

Despite the UFC’s recent expansion into mainstream society, public attitudes toward MMA are heavily skewed.  During the battle to legalize MMA in New York in 2016, State Assembly members opposing the bill disparaged the sport’s participants and fans with a variety of accusations that reflected a common lack of knowledge on the subject.  Some opposition, mostly that pertaining to domestic abuse and brain trauma, was justified, albeit unconvincing.  If MMA were banned due to the potential for severe brain trauma, should more socially accepted contact sports like football be banned too?  The hardest collisions in NFL football exceed 30,000 pounds of force (converted from Gs), similar to that of a severe car accident (Dakss), while the most powerful kick in martial arts, the spinning back kick, reaches just over 1,500 pounds of force when administered by a world class taekwondo professional (Hall) and is seldom utilized in MMA.  While football helmets blunt the damage of such forceful impacts significantly, they also provide a false sense of security that can allow for recklessness at high speeds in vulnerable situations (Grush).  Those who oppose MMA’s legalization based on safety concerns must assess the risk associated with playing other contact sports.  Some of the bill’s opponents voiced concerns about the promotion of domestic violence, which is highly prevalent among MMA fighters (Brennan), but cited a statistic that demonstrates correlation, not causation, as their only evidence.  While these issues are worthy of discussion, a host of other arguments reflected an ignorance and lack of information that provide a glimpse into various public perceptions of MMA.  At various points during the debate, local representatives compared it to gay porn (Slack), referenced it in association with slavery and public execution (Slack), and called it “[sanctioned] violence for profit,” (Hon. Ellen Jaffee, Slack) “human cockfighting,” (John McCain, Szczerba) and “a bare-knuckle fighting sport” (Hon. Deborah Glick, Slack).  Reflecting further ignorance, one representative stereotyped MMA coaches using a fake Twitter account and labeled MMA fans as Trump supporters (Slack).  Another referenced his conversation with the “Vice President of MMA,” a position that does not exist, and accused Ronda Rousey of throwing her fight against Holly Holm as a heavy favorite (Slack). 

While there are certainly reasonable arguments against legalizing MMA, the aforementioned attacks may indicate the desire to suppress the enjoyment of spectacle for the sake of social orderAccording to philosopher and media theorist John Fiske, combat sports pose a threat to social order because they did not originate from social utility, but instead “show stronger traces of their origins in the people; they offer release as much as recreation, and admit the forces of disorder as openly as those of order (1989, Page 79).”  Fiske explains that in 19th century London, the middle classes viewed popular pleasures asimmoral, disorderly, and economically improvident” (1989, Page 75).  The consequent suppression may have changed in form over time, but it still existsAs an example, Fiske describes the constant effort of the middle class to force boxing into conformity with the sportsmanlike ethos, which is still evidenced today by the omnipresence of pinstripes and bowties, old school commentators, and the similarity of amateur and professional boxing (1989, Page 80).  The boxing culture is very concerned with self-preservation and is fairly unwelcoming to outsiders who don’t understand the more sophisticated aspects of the art form.  If boxing admits the “forces of disorder,” (Page 79) MMA does so to an entirely new level and therefore, it is often deemed incompatible with the middle-class ethos and modern American cultural imaginary.  Lack of enjoyment or disgust at the often carnivalesque nature of MMA is understandable because it does tend to be extremely violent.  However, we have the ability to choose what we consume.  While some of the attacks directed at MMA center on legitimate concerns, many of its opponents appear to use the debate to maintain or establish a superficial moral high ground.  Because MMA fans, a class of people assumed to be unsophisticated and uncultured, do not comply with their vision of the American cultural imaginary, the sport’s most ardent detractors seek to get rid of it altogether.  MMA stands apart from all other sports in both positive and negative ways, but the sport’s value is often overlooked due to the abrasiveness of the spectacle.  

It is widely assumed that the rapid growth of MMA emerges from fans who are primarily motivated by its violence.  While it would be difficult to state how many are motivated by enjoyment of violence, we must consider a wide array of alternate motivators.  A survey of spectators at regional MMA events in Poland measured the influence of drama, aesthetics, vicarious achievement, violence, national pride, and other variables pertaining to sports media consumption.  The study revealed that “spectators… were foremost motivated by aesthetics and knowledge,” “the predominance of vicarious achievement as a positive predictor of sports media consumption in the male sample was extraordinary,” and “violence was not among the most important motives for spectators” (Zembura and Żyśko).  Because the sample was selected from small-scale events, it is probably not representative of the broader MMA audience, but rather a more avid, well-informed division of that audience following the regional scene.  If this is so, the study provides even stronger evidence rejecting the image of the unrefined and barbaric MMA fan.

            While many are perplexed as to why civilized human beings would want to watch cage fighting, considering why someone would want to be in a cage fight is even more confusing to most observers.  Surely there are fighters who are motivated by violence and anger, but the demands of MMA are so great that such motivators alone are unlikely to propel them to a high level.  As the sport has become more diverse, adding numerous weight classes including women’s divisions, and incorporating a greater variety of backgrounds and disciplines, the labels it receives today are often unfair because every fighter has his or her own individual story.  Many come from conflicted backgrounds and MMA allows them to literally fight their way out of bad circumstances or channel frustration in a more positive manner than they otherwise would.  Some are introduced to MMA for self-defense purposes and never turn back.  Some would otherwise be selling drugs, in jail, or have no other means of supporting their families.  While these are all strong reasons for choosing to fight, they all reflect some sort of necessity, and most fighters choose to fight out of desire, not necessity.

The extreme challenge of MMA often leads it to play a strong role in its participants’ personal development.  Jonathan Gottschall, an adjunct professor of literature at Washington and Jefferson College, realized he wasn’t going to achieve tenure and decided to take up MMA at the gym across the street from his office.  Recounting his experience, he posits that “most people get into it not because they’re violent or sadistic, or fantasize about hurting someoneFor me, it was always about the enemy within: you go there to defeat something within yourself that you don’t likeFor me, it was my own weakness, my own timidity, my own fear” (Gottschall).  Gottschall’s sentiment is common, as MMA provides a definitive platform for standing up to one’s fearWithstanding the test of will offered by a cage fight merits a sense of achievementThat feeling of pride, though, is sure to be balanced out, because “if you go into an MMA gym, your illusions don’t last very long.  On the first day, you get a very realistic sense of what your strengths and your weaknesses are, and how easily you break.  I felt stronger and braver, and I got better at it.  But I also got a lot more humble (sic).”  While it might seem that a typical MMA gym would produce hubristic alpha-males, there is almost always someone higher on the ladder than oneself, and there is no more humbling experience than getting beaten up.  Moreover, MMA training is extremely rigorous and requires exceptional discipline.  The shared experience of training, especially sparring, often produces a powerful sense of camaraderie and even fictive kinship, with coach acting as father and training partners as brothers and sisters.  According to Gottschall, “You build very close relationships with the people you’re constantly battling,” as contradictory as it may seemIt is essential to note that along with the possible benefits of mixed martial arts, there is potential for significant, sometimes permanent, bodily damage in choosing to participate.  As long as the grave health risks are fully understood, one should be capable of accurately weighing them against the reward and making an informed decision.  Some might argue that there are safer alternatives to MMA under the umbrella of martial arts and combat sports.  While this is true, the financial compensation in MMA is greater than in any such sport except for boxing, which might not necessarily be safer because more strikes are directed at the head.  Either way, many mixed martial artists choose the sport because they view it as the ultimate test of toughness and will.

            Can a civilized, advanced society acknowledge the violence of MMA and allow it for the sake of entertainment?  Many say no, but violence carries meaning.  According to anthropologist Neil Whitehead, most theoretical approaches to violence assume that violence “represents the breakdown of meaning” (2007, Page 1).  Indeed, our society generally does not perceive violence as a productive or acceptable solution to conflict.  We view people who utilize violence as uneducated, uncivilized, or irresponsible.  While these perspectives exist for good reason, Whitehead asserts that warfare and violence are as integral to “human cultural activity” as cultural performances in other categories, such as dance and religious ceremonies” (2005, Page 1).  Western society is generally more supportive of these other types of cultural performances, but our propensity for fighting is rooted in natural selection.  While destructive intent is present in an MMA fight, it exists within a controlled environment between highly trained athletes who hug one another after going to war.  Hence, “violent acts may embody complex aspects of symbolism that relate to both order and disorder in a given social context.” (Whitehead, 2005).  The UFC, for instance, has perfected a sense of ritualistic uniformity in all matters before a fight, setting the stage for moments of total disorder.  Ceremonial weigh ins, fighter walk-outs and introductions, divisional rankings, standardized uniforms, and tiers of events, each with a unique set of attributes, all contribute to this impression.  While other athletic events might feature a particular song or chant and the national anthem, the meticulous order with which MMA fighters prepare for the enactment of violence resembles that of entering actual war.  However, once the rituals run their course, the lights dim, and the referee yells “Fight!”, total disorder ensues.  In unarmed, virtually unlimited combat, the possibilities are endless.  While the technical, systematic nature of a professional fight may suggest order, the power of disorder often overwhelms the competitors during the heat of battle.  Because “symbols and rituals are as relevant to [the enactment of violence] as its instrumental aspects” (2007, Page 5), all of the ritualistic preparation and all that is important in the fighters’ lives enters the cage with them.  The instrumental aspects¾in this case punches, kicks, submissions, and so on¾ascribe some meaning to the violence because they reflect a fighter’s style.  For example, the winging hooks of a heavyweight who lowers his head and bites down on his mouthpiece carry a different meaning than the graceful wheel kick or slick Imanari roll of a flyweight.  The symbols and rituals, though¾family, coach, national pride, and dignity; training, dieting, and weight cutting¾are often more meaningful because the violence that the fighters administer reflects their importance.  According to Whitehead, symbolism “[gives] violence its many potential meanings in the formation of the cultural imaginary” (2005, Page 26).  Those who frown upon MMA often don’t take the time to understand its associated symbols and rituals, which is likely why they view its associated violence as senseless.  The presence of symbolism and juxtaposition between order and disorder lead to very different conclusions on violence’s meanings in the formation of the cultural imaginary, which is largely why MMA is such a polarizing subject.  We will likely never reach a consensus on the societal implications of violence in sport.  According to Sam Sommers, a psychology professor at Tufts University, “unwritten rulesgovern society as to what is considered acceptable, and those evolve over timeWhat’s thrown people off about MMA is that it’s newerIt has less gravitas” (Mael) than a sport like boxing with well-planted social and historical rootsWhile MMA is also more ostensibly violent than well-established sports, it is nevertheless likely to gain further approval when more people have grown up in its presence.

            A prevalent perception of violence in MMA is that it promotes domestic abuse.  In 2015, HBO Real Sports revealed a rate of domestic abuse arrests for MMA fighters of 750 per 100,000 men aged 18 to 39, compared with 210 for NFL players and 360 among the general population (Boren).  While these numbers are disturbing, this is the only major study on the subject so far, so we can only hypothesize regarding its meaning.  A study of domestic violence in the UFC would be more informative because the UFC represents MMA at its highest level and in its most regulated form.  Moreover, the Real Sports Study implies correlation but not causation.  It is likely that violent people are drawn to the brutality of MMA at a rate disproportional to other sports.  If so, the sport itself might not be promoting violence outside of the cage and could even be offering a positive means of channeling negative energy.  According to Jay Coakley, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, we should be careful not to assume that audience enjoyment of violence indicates willingness to behave violently or insensitivity to the consequences of violence.  Coakley asserts, “People will associate roughness and enjoyment only when the roughness is perceived to be an outgrowth of motivated, goal-oriented efforts to achieve success” (1988, Pages 325-326).  Indeed, the unsportsmanlike application of violence, which is not oriented toward achieving success, incites disapproval from the crowd in most cases.  Gottschall muses, “‘I don’t think [MMA] makes people more violent, and I don’t think it makes people less violentWhen you’re watching men fighting in a cage, you understand they’re in a magical zone where the laws and codes of civilized behavior are temporarily suspendedPeople aren’t this stupidThey understand that MMA in no way authorizes us to behave in a violent fashion” (Mael).  While the argument that MMA explicitly authorizes violent behavior is unconvincing, consuming violence could have an effect on one’s subconscious mindA study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that “randomized experiments demonstrate conclusively that exposure to media violence immediately increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior for children and adults in the short run” (Huesmann).  However, some major studies conclude that media violence does not increase aggressive behavior, so once again, a consensus is unlikely in the near futureAs further research is conducted regarding the relationship between MMA and domestic violence, the UFC needs to take a hard stance on the issue, an obligation that it has long neglected.

            While MMA itself might not promote domestic violence, its prominent executives facilitate its occurrence by failing to hold fighters accountable for their actionsFormer UFC champion Anthony Johnson faced only a seven-week suspension over the course of three domestic abuse accusations, along with other offenses (Brennan).  The UFC has kept numerous fighters signed despite repeated convictions of domestic abuse, against its supposed zero tolerance policy, and Bellator MMA signed Jon Koppenhaver, now legally named “War Machine,” while he was in jail on a felony assault charge (Brennan).  Jason “Mayhem” Miller, who competed in three UFC bouts despite an extensive list of legal offenses, jokes about the organization’s standards of conduct, “There’s no requirement, really” for being signed to the promotion (Brennan).  Powerful executives in MMA repeatedly value monetary gain above ethics, and it doesn’t end with lax disciplinary policiesIn 2016, former UFC champion Georges St. Pierre led a cast of high-profile fighters in efforts to establish a union and secure better pay and long-term benefits, as well as receive compensation for past injusticesUFC president Dana White was less than open to the idea and the movement stalled within a few weeksWhile a select few outliers get paid millions per fight, the median annual salary for UFC fighters in 2016 was $42,000, compared with the NBA’s minimum salary of $525,093 (Harris).  The UFC pays its fighters an estimated 15.6% of total revenue before tax, compared with over 50% in the NFL, and many fighters oppose the 2014 Reebok deal because it reduced their sponsorship earnings (Harris).  These numbers are staggering considering the extreme health risks of MMAFinally, marketing often prevails over meritocracy in MMA, further compromising the loyalty of its athletesMMA fighters are rewarded for expressing themselves and even making a spectacle in public relations because it sells tickets, a stark contrast to the requisite cookie-cutter media relations of other professional athletesFor example, brawls at press conferences and “trash talk” are often used as a fight’s primary form of promotionWhile some express gratitude for the effect of this approach on the growth of MMA, many resent the fact that less accomplished and less devoted fighters often receive better pay and opportunities simply based on their marketabilityIf MMA organizations don’t address these widely publicized ethical concerns, they jeopardize the legitimacy of the sportWhile other major American sports leagues use their platform to contribute to social causes, the UFC has yet to do so outside of three “Fight for the Troops” eventsBecause physical fighting could powerfully represent fighting for a cause and the UFC is so popular, it has a strong opportunity to make a difference on an issue like domestic violence, through which it would grow further.                                        

In order to bolster its perceived legitimacy, MMA organizations need to publicize more widely the extent of improvements in regulation and fighter safetyThe athletic commissions in New York and Nevada have implemented mandatory pre-fight brain testing and fighters have recently been pulled from events at a higher rate due to safety measures (Maese).  In May, the California State Athletic Commission approved a 10-point plan to combat extreme weight cutting and severe dehydration (Raimondi).  Weight cutting seriously exacerbates the dangers of MMA and many fighters deal with kidney or liver issues at some point in their career, but the practice can be eliminated by monitoring fighters’ weights over an extended time period and measuring pre-fight levels of dehydrationDepriving one’s body before putting it through intense suffering in a fight simply because all fighters do the same is irrationalOther recent safety measures include the introduction of more weight classes, allowing fighters to compete closer to their natural weight, and stricter policies by the US Anti-Doping Agency, which are gradually leveling the playing field in the UFCMore specific rules on illegal strikes and more severe penalties are gradually reducing the risk of serious injuryDue to stringent regulation in the UFC, 31% of the fights in its history have been decided by the judges, as opposed to only 17% of all recorded MMA fights (Chiappetta).  Between July and February 2010, 46% of UFC fights ended in a judges’ decision (Chiappetta).  While this may not be ideal for fan excitement and business, it demonstrates that regulation decreases the rate of knockouts.  MMA organizations could use improvements in regulation and safety to combat the image of brutality.  Whether MMA remains exciting as it becomes safer depends on unpredictable trends with regard to star-power, marketing, rules and judging criteria, and trends in technical and strategic developments.

While serious violence is an unavoidable aspect of mixed martial arts, it embodies cultural meaning on a deeper level than is readily apparent.  Because the sport is specific to a particular fan base and unfamiliar to most onlookers, the process of educating the broader population on the sport will continue long into the future.  The UFC, as MMA’s current premier organization, bears primary responsibility in this pursuit.  The growth of MMA depends largely on the UFC’s new management and its ability to address negative perceptions in popular culture and media.  The sport’s initial use of brutality for marketing purposes was effective in attracting viewers in the short term.  However, appealing to a wider audience in the long term will likely require demonstrating awareness of public perceptions on MMA and its frequent association with lawlessness, severe danger, domestic violence, manipulation of employees, and beyond.  Nevertheless, its publicity and respectability have increased exponentially over the last 24 years, and it will likely continue to attract more athletes at earlier ages, taking the quality of competition to higher levels.  In the near future, MMA organizations can eliminate weight cutting by dehydration, use technological advances to further improve fighter safety, embark on campaigns to combat issues like domestic violence, and possibly surpass one of the current “Big Four” American sports in popularity.  Regardless, there will always be biological and cultural foundations to why we fight and watch fighting, and mixed martial arts represents fighting in its purest attainable form.  Only time will determine the extent of its potential.






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