If violence is going out of fashion in sports, nobody’s told the fans.
Late last year, a capacity crowd of 20,427 people streamed in Madison Square Garden to witness Ultimate Fighting Championship 205. It was the first major mixed martial arts event to ever be contested in New York City. The stacked fight card drew a record gate and shattered pay-per-view records. For a night, spectators in the nation’s financial and performing arts capital watched eagerly for moves with names such as “guillotines,” “anaconda chokes,” “spinning back fists,” and “hook kicks” — the lingo of a sport that’s a mere quarter-century old and that keeps growing in popularity despite its brutal image, or maybe because of it.
In mixed martial arts, or MMA, fighters from different disciplines, such as judo, karate, jiu jitsu, and wrestling, face off against each other in a cage-enclosed ring. By sports standards, it’s an infant. But it’s growing up fast. A Sports Illustrated cover in 2007 famously asked if MMA was “too brutal or the future?”
The future has won. Fox regularly showcases UFC events, and ESPN covers the sport like any other. MMA athletes are becoming so mainstream that they’re landing movie roles and gigs on “Dancing With the Stars.” A recent swipe from Meryl Streep — who complained at the Golden Globes that an immigration crackdown would wipe out Hollywood and leave behind only football and mixed martial arts — offered backhanded testimony to the sport’s growing profile.
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Yet questions that dogged mixed martial arts from the outset remain: How much brutality are fans willing to accept in a mainstream sport? And why is such a physically punishing sport attracting so much attention even as other forms of pro athletics, like football and hockey, are bending over backward to protect players from injury, particularly of the concussive variety?
The lingering controversy over mixed martial arts exposes a deeper dilemma in all contact sports: Even when fans rationally grasp the risk to individual competitors, we can’t help but feel that hard hits enrich the spectacle.
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The goal of mixed martial arts is to inflict as much damage on your opponent as possible while taking minimal damage yourself. There are few restrictions — which makes MMA extremely unpredictable. In three or five five-minute rounds, viewers are virtually guaranteed to feel exhilarated, dubious, or guilty.
“There’s an edge-of-your-seat kind of thing, a very visceral gut instinct to [MMA],” says Adam Naylor, a clinical assistant professor of sport psychology at Boston University who has worked with mixed martial artists. “In any sport there’s a tension to a tied game, or a close game, but I feel like all of these fights feel this way.”
Oddly, because of the brevity of the matches and lack of padding, the sport can be less punishing to the body that other sports, like boxing or football. Still, mixed martial arts feels different. There is a real threat of seeing something terrible at any second — a fighter being choked unconscious or stiffened up by a particularly severe knockout, for example. Fighters have died from their injuries, though not at the highest levels of the sport. Other sports have the real risk of injury or death, NASCAR for instance. But the goal of car racing isn’t to bring other drivers to the edge of consciousness.
Because of the violence, fans of the UFC and its competitors have been stigmatized over the years as bloodthirsty. Jonathan Gottschall, a college professor who decided to take up MMA and chronicle his experience in his book “The Professor in the Cage,” explains in an interview: “A lot of people have looked at the violence in MMA and they think it’s just beyond the pale. They think it’s beyond boxing, too much for a civilized society to tolerate. Also, MMA came on the scene around the time when traditional models of masculinity became suspect. Now we have a much more complex and really adversarial relationship with masculinity, and our best thinkers don’t want to celebrate it.”
Indeed, the rise of MMA highlights a growing divide between public mores, which increasingly condemn physical fights, and a certain quirk of human nature: When two people are battling it out, it’s hard to look away. “If you’re watching a basketball game at a stop light, you might watch for a minute and move on; but if you see a fight, you’re likely to want to hang back and watch the train wreck that might ensue,” says Matt Mitrione, a heavyweight veteran of the UFC who now fights for Bellator MMA, a rival mixed martial arts circuit. “It’s like that in first world and third world countries, fighting is universal.”
Do all humans have innate inner aggression that needs to be fed? Is fighting something people want to emulate? Behavioral psychologists have been seeking an answer to that question for years. Albert Bandura’s famous “Bobo Doll Experiment” found that children are far more likely to behave violently if they watch an adult behave violently first. The findings spawned his “social learning theory” — the idea that behavior can be learned just by observing the environment around you without it being reinforced. The theory is often applied to violence in the media like video games and music, but there has been limited research on how it applies to ultimate fighting.
“I don’t think [MMA] makes people more violent, and I don’t think it makes people less violent,” Gottschall says. “For some reason, intellectuals really want to believe in this. We consume a huge amount of violent entertainment in our movies, our video games, MMA, and yet our world gets safer and safer. When 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 suspended. People aren’t this stupid. They understand that MMA in no way authorizes us to behave in a violent fashion.”
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To some extent, the fighting organizations are playing a double game. They’ve perfected the art of promoting themselves as a mainstream sport, complete with fighter rankings, betting lines, and fantasy games. Still, in UFC commercials, social media posts, and highlight reels, the brief moments of shocking brutality define the sport more than anything else. When Ronda Rousey, among the sport’s earliest female stars, was knocked out at UFC 193 with a kick to the head, it was a sobering reminder that the flashy sport really is a high-risk venture.
Even so, it may be heading for more widespread acceptance. Sam Sommers, a professor of psychology at Tufts University and coauthor of “This is Your Brain on Sports,” sees the emergence of violent sports as cyclical. “While MMA has become popular, things are going in both directions,” he says. “Other sports are being made safer. [MMA] seems to have captured some kind of cultural zeitgeist, but some sports are getting less violent.”
More established sports also get a benefit of the doubt that mixed martial arts does not. Ultimately, we’re not entirely used to MMA yet. “We in psychology talk about norms, which are unwritten rules that govern society as to what is considered acceptable, and those evolve over time,” says Sommers. “There was an era where fights to the death were appropriate for public consumption. . . . What’s thrown people off about MMA is that it’s newer. It has less gravitas. When people have grown up with it, they’ll be more accepting.”Jon Mael is a freelance writer living in Sharon.
The death of Queensland professional boxer Braydon Smith last week has re-ignited the debate over boxing as a sport in this country. The 23-year-old collapsed 90 minutes after completing a featherweight bout in Toowoomba on March 14 and did not regain consciousness before his life-support was turned off last Monday. The Australian Medical Association used the case to renew its call to ban boxing.
Boxing Queensland president Ann Tindall responded by saying that the sport is no more dangerous than other contact sports. Braydon’s death was a “tragic accident”.
Boxing is dangerous. Boxers face a considerable risk of brain injury every time they step into the ring.
The evidence is not disputed. Highly influential for the supporters of an outright ban was the World Medical Association’s 1983 statement at its World Medical Assembly calling for such a ban. An article six years later in the Journal of the American Medical Association, entitled Why physicians should oppose boxing: an interdisciplinary history perspective, was equally damning.
Boxing authorities responded by mandating shorter bouts and prescribing strict weight divisions. Protective headgear is now required for all organised non-professional competitions.
An allied phenomenon has reared its head in the Australian sporting landscape. For the last decade, American pay TV has been screening the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Drawing worldwide television audiences, this form of virtually unrestrained human combat is drawing great interest in Australia.
The Australian Fighting Championship was held in Melbourne last weekend after the new state Labor government lifted the ban on “cage” fighting or mixed martial arts (MMA) events. Western Australia is now the only state in Australia to ban cage fighting.
Australian legislators have been reluctant to ban MMA entirely, probably because they don’t wish to be seen as evoking a “nanny” state.
Consent does not alter the consequence
Opponents of bans point to other sports that have a high risk of fatalities, such as horse racing, skydiving, motor sport and surfing. The problem for such advocates is that boxing and cage fighting share a unique characteristic: participants set out to “stop” their opponent, a euphemism for the infliction of harm that renders opponents unable to continue fighting. Knocking them unconscious is the ultimate “stop”.
A person arriving on Earth from another planet would find it difficult to reconcile different outcomes from the same scenario: two people throwing punches at each other with great force. In a boxing ring or cage, hundreds of onlookers cheer them on.
The same two people the following week outside a nightclub attacking each other with the same degree of force would be arrested by police, would spend the night in a lock-up and would be penalised with a fine in the magistrates court the following morning.
We explain the legal difference thus: the former involves the consent of both of the participants, and the latter probably does not (even if both protagonists had agreed to “step outside”). But the distinction would be lost on an alien observer.
The National Committee on Violence in 1990 weighed into this debate when considering the means by which Australians could reduce the levels of violence in our society. The authors of the report stopped short of recommending an outright ban on boxing, although a minority report recommended a review by the appropriate medical and sporting bodies regarding the control of boxing and its ultimate elimination as a sport.
Is it civilised to celebrate aggression?
Given its history, its Olympic and Commonwealth Games status, that it involves consenting adults, and the allure it has for millions of fans, there will be no change to the legal status of boxing in the foreseeable future.
Medical specialists and the mild-mannered among us might have hoped that the sport would have declined in popularity by now, either because of the number of deaths and brain injuries it causes, or through its reputation (especially in the US) for corruption. However, it appears to be as popular as ever. The tragic death of young Braydon Smith might, once again, challenge some participants to reconsider their pastime, but it won’t be the state that says that they have to stop it altogether.
Cage fighting elevates these concerns to another level entirely. The gladiatorial battles that drew the masses in the first century to the Roman Colosseum were a reflection of the cruel society of the day. One might question, watching the UFC channel and any other cage-fighting event, how much more civilised we have become in the intervening two millennia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, himself a well-known pugilist in his Oxford days, in 2010 called for a “kinder, gentler polity”.
We should heed Abbott’s words, not only because of the dangers such fighting poses for its participants, but for the way in which it tends to de-sensitise us to the deliberate infliction of harm and to normalise aggressive behaviour in the minds of us all, especially our youth.
While criminologists may stop short of linking organised violence to the more than 400,000 assaults reported each year in Australia, cage fighting has no place in contemporary society.